The 10 Best Rap Albums of 2012
10. The Idea of Beautiful, Rapsody
The black mamba of super producer 9th Wonder's Jamla Records team reached a new pinnacle in her career, and in her evolution as an artist this year. Sprinkled with collaborations from Big Remo, BJ the Chicago Kid and Childish Gambino, Rapsody takes us on a journey of raw emotion, as she purrs over gorgeous, string-heavy beats from Jamla's in-house production team.
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9. Key to the Kuffs, JJ DOOM
Elusive, metal-faced, longtime Long Islander MF DOOM resurfaced in exile this year. The England-born emcee claims he returned to his homeland for a series of shows, and due to visa issues, faced extradition from the U.S. government. Though he still swears we'll be seeing a new Madvillain album before the new year (and a Ghostface Killah collab, Swift and Changeable, sometime in the near future), Key to the Kuffs is more than enough to tide fans over. With his effortless flow of political vitriol spewing over Jneiro Jarel beats, DOOM makes it clear he will not be silenced by bureaucracy.
8. Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, Big Boi
Remember in The Wedding Singer, when Adam Sandler plays the breakup song he wrote for Drew Barrymore? He tells her, "When I wrote this, I was listening to The Cure a lot." That is what Big Boi's latest evokes, in the best possible way. With collaborations from Phantogram and Little Dragon, the instrumentation is different from anything else you'll hear this year. To all the fans expecting another Sir Lucious Left Foot, Big Boi proves he brings range; the majority of the album visits influences ranging from '80s new wave to dream pop, but tracks like "In the A" and "Thom Pettie" remind us Antwan Patton is still a country boy deep down.
7. Reloaded, Roc Marciano
Boom-bap loops and minimalist beats provide the perfect backdrop for this eloquent Long Island emcee to go to work. The laid-back simplicity of Marciano's flow has always evoked a simpler time, when flashy beats did not exclude focus on thoughtful, solid lyrical content. While he weaves a smooth narrative of street decadence and disdain, production from the likes of The Alchemist and Q-Tip glimmer in the the darkness. Reloaded is a triumph for bringing rap music back to its bare bones, in an era of cultural gluttony.
6. Cancer 4 Cure, El-P
On "The Full Retard," El-P compels us to "pump this shit, like they do in the future." In a career spanning over a decade, the sci-fi nihilist New Yorker has never failed to serve us dense aggression and unfiltered defiance. The Definitive Jux founder forces us to look darkness in the eye and choose to live beyond it, following him from on the long climb back up from rock bottom.
5. Control System, Ab-Soul
Top Dawg Entertainment's Black Hippy collective really took over 2012. One of the shining beacons of the new West supergroup's year was definitely Ab-Soul's introspective sophomore effort. Spending years underestimated and underrated as a rapper and bullied as a child, he manages to approach the mic with stirring self assurance. Featuring beats from Dallas' own Brain Gang Blue (under his production moniker, King Blue), Skhye Hutch and Digi+Phonics, Control System is a long-awaited victory lap. Ab-Soul said it best himself on Twitter recently: "We made it cool to be smart again... I like that."
4. Blue Chips, Action Bronson
This collaborative album with Fools Gold's Party Supplies was a major turning point for chef-turned-emcee Action Bronson. In a hash haze of food and sex, Bronson proves himself to be one of the most talented and hilarious lyricists in the game right now. Over retro break beats and classic samples, he schmoozed his way into rap fans' regular rotation with tales of hookers and johns, first love and gourmet delicacies, all without a hook in sight. Though his flow gets compared to Ghostface Killah, Action Bronson is truly in a lane of his own.
3. Life is Good, Nas
With his 11th studio album, the elder rap god delivered a near-flawless product, his most cohesive and realized narrative since 1994 debut Illmatic. In the wake of his highly publicized divorce, Nas gets personal over production from Large Professor, Salaam Remi and No I.D, diving into themes of nostalgia, fatherhood and middle age. Even in the packaging, featuring ex-wife Kelis' actual wedding dress draped over his lap, Nas is still shattering our expectations of him after all these years.
2. good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar's major label debut was not only a triumph for the industry, but for a new and thriving generation of hip-hop fans. Lamar presents the album as a short film, chronicling his days as a youth in Compton, telling stories of confrontation, teen angst and relentless ambition. Over beats from Sounwave, Hit-Boy, Scoop DeVille, and more, Lamar's is one of the most authentic accounts of growing up on the West Coast, just trying to do right in a environment that makes it damn near impossible.
1. R.A.P. Music, Killer Mike
Atlanta's definitive politico delivered a career milestone in 2012. An acronym for rebellious African people, R.A.P. Music, produced by El-P, discusses race relations and power struggles with unprecedented sophistication. A child of the '80s, Killer Mike spans the violent and hopeless Reagan era to the globalization of a multi-billion dollar industry, reminding us where we came from and what we needs to thrive as a culture.